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Review of Jodi Dean’s Crowds and Party

On Collectives, Communicative Capitalism, and Suspension of the Individual Ego

In the years after the financial crisis of 2008, protesters took to the streets, pundits demanded reform, and politicians promised action. In the United States, the dark heart of neoliberal financial capital was finally confronted by the broken promises of its economy: income inequality, wealth gaps, untaxed financial income, and the vast disparity between the one percent and the rest of the country. It was a moment when it seemed that the system could not go on as it had.

Nowhere was this sense more palatable than in Zucotti Park, where the #OccupyWallStreet protesters set up camp. It was a moment when, especially for the Left, the world paused as if the railroad switch of history might suddenly direct the country on a new, more equitable track.

Six years later, even the meager gains from the Obama administration are likely to be reversed, perhaps setting the progressive agenda back decades.[1] For the Left, there is a sense that an opportunity was missed; a crisis wasted. Though published before the election, it is this sense of failure that animates political theorist Jodi Dean’s latest book, Crowds and Party.

The book continues a project that took shape in 2009 with the publication of a collection titled Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies. In those essays, Dean built on her earlier analysis of “communicative capitalism,” moving away from the critique of deliberative democracy and the work of Jürgen Habermas, now aligning the concept with the growing critique of neoliberalism and emphasizing how speech acts are commodified and co-opted by capitalism. Crowds and Party also builds on a second persistent theme in Dean’s work: she is the most prominent American academic defending and developing the work of Slavoj Žižek.[2] Like Žižek, Dean evinces a suspicion of identity politics, believing it to be a tool through which neoliberalism distracts workers from asserting their economic rights. Her previous book, Communist Horizons, engages Žižek and other European thinkers like Bruno Bosteels and Alain Badiou in their attempt to rehabilitate the theory of communism.[3]

It was not theory, but practice that prompted Crowds and Party, however. Dean judges Occupy, in which she participated, and other global protest movements to have failed. The book begins with a story about Occupy protesters talking themselves out of an action in the call-and-repeat form that became so iconic: “Everyone is an autonomous individual,” the crowd echoes.

This is a seminal moment for Dean, all the more powerful for experiencing it directly. Occupy’s failure resonates with her critique of communicative capitalism; as she argues in Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies, the Left now speaks in the language of conservatism, fetishizing individuality at the expense of solidarity and political success.[4] In this sense, Dean’s newest book pulls on a loose thread from her last: How should the Left organize political movements to avoid the traps of neoliberal subjectivity?

Dean’s central themes are announced in the title: crowds and party. The former represent spontaneous group events, though pinning down a specific definition is harder than it should be.[5] Crowds are “an effect of collectivity, the influence — whether conscious, affective, or unconscious — of others.”[6] Unsurprisingly, she avoids using the derogatory term “mob” (and the literature on mobs). Dean wants us to celebrate the power and potential of crowds. In a typical passage eschewing causality, she writes, “[d]e-individualization accompanies intense belonging.”[7] She seems to exhort us: Look at how crowds let us transcend our individuality and difference. Look at how crowds demonstrate a collective will — not general or universal, but neither is it the mere aggregation of interests offered by liberal democracy. If Dean romanticizes the crowd throughout the book, it is not unlike the concert-goer who subsumes herself within the solidarity of the audience created by the shared experience of music.[8]

The romantic moment of the crowd demonstrates to participants (and to Dean, the spectator[9]) the limits of the bourgeois subject, enframed by individuality.[10] She engages with continental philosophy’s obsession with subjectivity to dethrone the individual from it’s privileged place. It is crucial for Dean to show that the individual is not the political atom,[11] but a contingent, historical project driven by capitalism. This argument is not controversial after Foucault, but her contention that no ontological priority should be given to individual subjects over collective ones is radical. She does not suggest that the consensus expected of individuals is directly analogous to the collective. Nor, surprisingly, does she deconstruct the idea of coherent interests at the individual level, leveraging psychoanalysis against homo-economicus. Nevertheless, Dean wants to argue that intelligible interests can be attributed to collectives, a move that allows her to replace the “individuals” of democratic theory with “collectives.” It’s crucial to her argument that crowds cannot fulfill this potential without transforming into a party.

Crowds are a valuable and functional form of political expression, but they have weaknesses according to Dean. Using Occupy as her example, she argues that crowds cannot survive long enough to create real political change. This is the lesson she learns from Occupy: “everyone is an autonomous individual” under communicative capitalism. But, her argument requires crowds, as collectives, to be have certain virtues as well as vices. It’s a fine line and she doesn’t walk it well. It is no surprise, then, that it is the idea of the party that sheds the vices, and builds on the virtues, of the crowd.

As with “crowd,” what Dean means by “party” is hard to grasp. Though she is associated with Slavoj Žižek (the author of a contrarian defense of Lenin, Revolution at the Gates) the concept of party in Crowds and Party is neither that of classical Marxist-Leninism nor that of modern political science. Then again, maybe it is. The confusion arises partly because Dean avoids concrete historical examples (to avoid discussions of Stalinism) and partly because what Dean ascribes to the party organization is not typically listed among its virtues. It is not an intellectual vanguard, the leadership, or even a specific organizational structure that Dean ultimately values. Where she talks about “substitutionism,”[12] it is not because she is a Leninist here, but because she is worried that the reader is predisposed to dismiss the idea of a Party entirely. Instead, the party form, like the crowd, provides a mechanism for the individual to find meaning and reinterpret their identity.

But the symbolic dimension of the party, its form as a place from which communists assess themselves and their actions, is what matters.[13]

 

The Communist Party provided an affective infrastructure through which everyday experiences took meaning separate from those channeled through capitalism.[14]

This concern with meaning and belief follows from Dean’s analysis of communicative capitalism, which co-opts and redeploys the languages of individuality and identity. Just as neoliberalism imposes individuality on us, Dean argues that it circumscribes the narratives we can tell about ourselves: we are always consumers, after all. All counter-narratives are co-opted and redirected by communicative capitalism.[15] Under such conditions, the revolutionary act is not to seize the state, but to create an autobiography unsullied by neoliberalism. The Party, like the crowd, breaks the neoliberal self into the collective, and reorients our perspective away from individualism. It is only as a member of a crowd that the individual can break the deep subjectification of the “society of control” and rediscover their autonomy. Paradoxically, then, Dean’s argument is that it is only by losing one’s individuality that we rediscover it.

An “affective infrastructure” drives her description of the party and the romanticism that colors it. It is the ability to subsume individuals into a collective that links the crowd and the party.

This focus on a solidarity that reframes our subjectivity is both a strength and weakness of Dean’s account. It is a strength insofar as it neatly addresses the problem of ideology: how will workers encased in ideology recognize their true interests? This, at least, was how the question was framed during the Second International period. Today, after Foucault, we’ve come to recognize that the subjectification process is both deep and pervasive. Any would-be revolutionary must address how individuals can confront and overcome the problem of ideology at the level of subject-formation. To her credit, Dean has an answer: participation in a collective event suspends the subject’s interpellation as an individual.

Dean makes clear from her discussion that this participation is a deep suspension of the individual ego to the collective. She recounts a story of a pregnant party member who is torn between her obligations as a mother and as a Communist. She “chafes” at the political quietude and isolation imposed by motherhood. Notably, in a section containing a rare historical example, Dean does not go on to describe the support and help provided by a Party willing to pitch in and help with childcare — a Party that cares about the mental health of its members. Rather, Dean writes,

All the multitudinous activities of living that seem so necessary from the perspective of capitalism fall to the wayside from the perspective of the Party.[16]

Even if hard-won, however, Dean’s rejection of modern identity at times borders on nihilism. “One was somebody,” she notes, “because one mattered to the collective.”[17] It is the perspective of the Party, then, and not that of the individual, that acts like a categorical imperative. It is a moral law, freely accepted and deeply felt.

Each feels the inner force of their collective strength as a command or duty. This duty is the collective desire impressing itself in the individual comrade.[18] 

 

The [correct, i.e., Party,] perspective is like a law, the law enabling communist desire, setting it apart from the capitalist world by holding up and uniting the experiences of the oppressed.[19]

All of this romanticism might be more palatable if Dean engaged more broadly in alternative perspectives. She engages no contemporary authors save for a few, predictable European, thinkers.[20] Her argument is difficult to disentangle from Lacanian psychoanalysis, meaning that if one is skeptical of efforts to apply psychological insights to macro-social events then Dean has little to say. And of political science, Dean is entirely neglectful. It’s perfectly fine to suggest that we speak a neutered, apolitical discourse, but the literature on democracy, representation, and political parties is directly relevant to Dean’s subject and citing it would benefit her scholarship.

The most interesting omission is the literature on mobs and atomized society. In the years following the revelations of the Holocaust, intellectuals and scholars struggled to understand the appeal of totalitarianism, a rubric that elided socialism and fascism. Among these writers were Eric Hoffer and Hannah Arendt. Their basic premise was that a society atomized by capitalism was easily reconstituted into a reactionary mob by a charismatic leader. Dean’s emphasis of the subsumption of self into the collective is eerily reminiscent of Hoffer, Arendt, and even Ernst Junger’s front mentality.[21] Put aside “the leader” for a moment. Here we have two descriptions of a collective event, each providing their members with meaning and discursive resources — an affective infrastructure. For anti-totalitarians, this loss of individuality was the sine qua non of the overt acts of evil perpetrated by Fascism. For Dean, the loss of individuality is a prelude to new forms of resistance to capitalism and collective organization. There is a striking incongruity here.

Jodi Dean is not a fascist, nor is her book. But I’m concerned that she doesn’t address the voluminous literature on masses and mobs, instead relying on Lacan to carry most of the epistemological water. Moreover, Dean’s politics reject the entire spectrum of identity politics that have driven the resurgence of Leftist politics in the last year, such as Occupy and #BlackLivesMatter. She would leave political activists without a theoretical vocabulary necessary to engage with and understand Trump supporters. When Dean writes, “attachment to identity is pathological,” this should concern us.[22] The history of actually existing communism is littered with the recantations of true believers and fellow travelers. If the god of communism failed, Dean wants her reincarnated. This seems far more troublesome than Leninism.

Footnotes:

[1] Andrew Ross Sorkin’s Too Big to Fail documents how the Obama Administration, from the beginning, was unwilling to attempt deep reform of the banking system.

[2] Dean is the author of Žižek’s Politics (Verso, 2006). By extension, her writing is marked by Lacanian psychoanalysis.

[3] This project occurred first as a conference and was later published as a book, The Idea of Communism (Verso, 2010).

[4] Dean writes, “The era of communicative capitalism is the era of commanded individuality” (Crowds and Parties, 31).

[5] Dean provides several enigmatic definitions of her core concepts throughout the book. In the sense that Lacan represents her epistemological ground, the most elemental definition, still far from easy to understand, is: “The crowd rupture is the Real that incites political subjectification.” Later, she writes simply, “The crowd is the Real.”

[6] Dean Crowds and Parties, 8.

[7] Dean Crowds and Parties, 161.

[8] And having been broken out of the reverie, she now seeks to make the moment last, whether by inscribing music on discs or by institutionalizing the crowd into a party.

[9] Dean’s immersion in the crowd is broken when they assert their autonomy in chant. She is transformed from a participant into a spectator and judge at that moment. Perhaps it is she, not the crowd, that lacks solidarity?

[10] To make this point, Dean neatly reverses the Althusserian dictum: now, the subject is interpollated as an individual (Dean Crowds and Parties, 70-3).

[11] If I can borrow a metaphor from physics to replace the language of subjectivity which is deeply entwined in Dean’s argument.

[12] “Substitutionism” is a term attributed to Leon Trotsky, however Rosa Luxembourg predates him. Others like A.J. Polan have written modern versions. In summary, “substitutionism” claims that Leninism replaces the working class with the Party, and inevitably the Party is replaced by the Leader. Stalinism is a direct consequence of Leninism.

[13] Dean Crowds and Parties, 219.

[14] Dean Crowds and Parties, 220.

[15] This is an interesting potential contrast with Foucault, who might be read as advocating the strategy of self-definition in his discussion of Baudelaire in “What is Enlightenment?”

[16] Dean Crowds and Parties, 242.

[17] Dean Crowds and Parties, 236.

[18] Dean Crowds and Parties, 237.

[19] Dean Crowds and Parties, 243.

[20] Though not Ernesto Laclau, whose book On Populist Reason is conspicuously absent.

[21] Eric Hoffer, The True Believer. Hannah Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism (especially volume 3). Ernst Junger, Storm of Steel. On Junger, see also Jeffrey Herf, Reactionary Modernism (Cambridge, 1984).

[22] Dean Crowds and Parties, 256.

Luke Mergner

  • Jodi Dean

    Hi Luke, thanks for the thoughtful review. My 2009 book is called Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies.

    As you know, definitions are not always useful since most of our concepts have histories. The concept of the crowd that I use comes primarily from LeBon (a temporary collective being) and is expanded via Canetti (especially with respect to the egalitarian discharge). Crowds don’t have to be spontaneous; they can be organized and produced. I talk about mobs on pp. 7-8, and refer briefly to some of that literature. As I note, the 19th century opens up the discussion of whether a crowd is a mob or the people. This is a political question, a matter of struggle and debate. This struggle is always necessarily situated — what is opened up, what is possible? Some commentators always mistrust the people, always render the crowd as a mob. Others find possibility.

    I don’t deconstruct the idea of individual interests because I am more interested in rejecting the individual form altogether. You write: “Dean wants to argue that intelligible interests can be attributed to collectives” — that description doesn’t ring true to me since I don’t use the language of interests. Instead, with respect to the crowd I use Canetti to speak of the discharge as the moment of equality that gives the crowd its substance.

    You say I don’t give concrete historical examples of the party — but chapter 3 discusses Lenin’s account of the party and chapter 5 talks about experiences of members of the British and US communist parties.

    Where you really misunderstand (or misrepresent) what I’m doing is when you say that “the party form, like the crowd, provides a mechanism for the individual to find meaning and reinterpret their identity.” This isn’t accurate because the first two chapters of the book dismantle the individual form. Even the quote from me that you use to support your point doesn’t work because in the quoted passage I refer to communists in the plural. My point involves the way that the Party is a site of collective belonging that works back on the collectivity. There is no rediscovery of individuality — the long section on Kristin Ross should make that clear. At any rate, my point is not that “its the ability to subsume individuals into a collective” that links crowd and party; it’s that the party is the form that organizes fidelity to the egalitarian discharge of the crowd. By organizing this fidelity, it can hold open the gap opened up by the disruptive crowd event (and of course not all crowd events are disruptive).

    Also, notice: it is not just participation in a crowd event that disrupts the interpellation of the subject as an individual. Rather (as chapter 1 argues), it is already the case that commanded individualism is over-burdening the fragile individual form. The extremes of contemporary capitalism are too much for individuals to bear (as I explain via the account of the changes in the individual form). So there are material reasons for the dissolution of this form today that should be understood not as pathologies (ala Turkle) but as indications of real contradictions.

    I’m not sure what’s at stake in your claim that I engage few contemporary authors other than predictably European ones. I’m tempted to think that you read in a different archive and I didn’t refer to the people you like to read. But, the first chapter talks about a number of contemporary sociologists, I talk about Sherry Turkle, Kristin Ross, Judith Butler, John Holloway, Hardt and Negri, Eugene Holland and, yes, Althusser, Dolar, Zizek, Badiou.

    You say I don’t mention political science or any of the literature on parties – -there is an extensive discussion of Michels and notes to political scientists’ commentary on Michels. You have a general dismissal that says looking at the literature on representation, democracy, and parties would benefit my scholarship. But you don’t say how or in what way in would change my argument. It’s interesting to note that by misstating the title of my 2009 book, Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies, you actually omit reference to a book where I do engage work in democratic theory. Again, I’m left thinking that basically you are just signaling that your archive is different from mine.

    You mention that I reject identity politics. You don’t mention my argument — which is that identity today is fully saturated. It can’t ground a politics. The claim for or attribution of an identity tells us nothing about a person’s — or a group’s — politics. (I’ll add here that my first book was Solidarity of Strangers: feminism after identity politics, 1996). I emphasize as well that “the wide array of politicized issues and identities enables a communism that, more fully than ever before, can take the side of the oppressed, indeed, that can make the multiple struggles of the oppressed into a side.”

    It seems to me that you have one criticism: Dean rejects individuality. Yes, I do.

    And then you end with an anti-communist gesture — one that you link to recantations part of the history of anti-communism. But of course that does not sum or capture communism or anti-communism, so it strikes me as an odd kind of ideological signal.

  • Jared Rodríguez

    Can you please restore the very thoughtful and thorough response/comment made by Jodi Dean? I read it about a half an hour ago and it appears to have been deleted or hidden. I think it sets the stage for a very productive conversation.

  • Jodi Dean

    My first long comment vanished. That’s weird. It’s also weird that the author of the review gets the title of the book wrong.

    • I had the post open on my computer and therefore was able to recover the comment. Our technical team will explore why this happened. It may have been a glitch or some kind of hack.

      • Jodi Dean

        Thank you, Jeffrey

  • For some reason Jodi Deans’ comment disappeared. I don’t know why this happened. It was either a glitch with our platform (we are working to upgrade) or a hack Thankfully I have it here. JG

    Jodi Dean:

    “Hi Luke, thanks for the thoughtful review. My 2009 book is called Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies.

    As
    you know, definitions are not always useful since most of our concepts
    have histories. The concept of the crowd that I use comes primarily from
    LeBon (a temporary collective being) and is expanded via Canetti
    (especially with respect to the egalitarian discharge). Crowds don’t
    have to be spontaneous; they can be organized and produced. I talk about
    mobs on pp. 7-8, and refer briefly to some of that literature. As I
    note, the 19th century opens up the discussion of whether a crowd is a
    mob or the people. This is a political question, a matter of struggle
    and debate. This struggle is always necessarily situated — what is
    opened up, what is possible? Some commentators always mistrust the
    people, always render the crowd as a mob. Others find possibility.

    I
    don’t deconstruct the idea of individual interests because I am more
    interested in rejecting the individual form altogether. You write: “Dean
    wants to argue that intelligible interests can be attributed to
    collectives” — that description doesn’t ring true to me since I don’t
    use the language of interests. Instead, with respect to the crowd I use
    Canetti to speak of the discharge as the moment of equality that gives
    the crowd its substance.

    You say I don’t give concrete historical
    examples of the party — but chapter 3 discusses Lenin’s account of the
    party and chapter 5 talks about experiences of members of the British
    and US communist parties.

    Where you really misunderstand (or
    misrepresent) what I’m doing is when you say that “the party form, like
    the crowd, provides a mechanism for the individual to find meaning and
    reinterpret their identity.” This isn’t accurate because the first two
    chapters of the book dismantle the individual form. Even the quote from
    me that you use to support your point doesn’t work because in the quoted
    passage I refer to communists in the plural. My point involves the way
    that the Party is a site of collective belonging that works back on the
    collectivity. There is no rediscovery of individuality — the long
    section on Kristin Ross should make that clear. At any rate, my point is
    not that “its the ability to subsume individuals into a collective”
    that links crowd and party; it’s that the party is the form that
    organizes fidelity to the egalitarian discharge of the crowd. By
    organizing this fidelity, it can hold open the gap opened up by the
    disruptive crowd event (and of course not all crowd events are
    disruptive).

    Also, notice: it is not just participation in a crowd
    event that disrupts the interpellation of the subject as an individual.
    Rather (as chapter 1 argues), it is already the case that commanded
    individualism is over-burdening the fragile individual form. The
    extremes of contemporary capitalism are too much for individuals to bear
    (as I explain via the account of the changes in the individual form).
    So there are material reasons for the dissolution of this form today
    that should be understood not as pathologies (ala Turkle) but as
    indications of real contradictions.

    I’m not sure what’s at stake
    in your claim that I engage few contemporary authors other than
    predictably European ones. I’m tempted to think that you read in a
    different archive and I didn’t refer to the people you like to read.
    But, the first chapter talks about a number of contemporary
    sociologists, I talk about Sherry Turkle, Kristin Ross, Judith Butler,
    John Holloway, Hardt and Negri, Eugene Holland and, yes, Althusser,
    Dolar, Zizek, Badiou.

    You say I don’t mention political science or
    any of the literature on parties – -there is an extensive discussion of
    Michels and notes to political scientists’ commentary on Michels. You
    have a general dismissal that says looking at the literature on
    representation, democracy, and parties would benefit my scholarship. But
    you don’t say how or in what way in would change my argument. It’s
    interesting to note that by misstating the title of my 2009 book,
    Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies, you actually omit reference to
    a book where I do engage work in democratic theory. Again, I’m left
    thinking that basically you are just signaling that your archive is
    different from mine.

    You mention that I reject identity politics.
    You don’t mention my argument — which is that identity today is fully
    saturated. It can’t ground a politics. The claim for or attribution of
    an identity tells us nothing about a person’s — or a group’s —
    politics. (I’ll add here that my first book was Solidarity of Strangers:
    feminism after identity politics, 1996). I emphasize as well that “the
    wide array of politicized issues and identities enables a communism
    that, more fully than ever before, can take the side of the oppressed,
    indeed, that can make the multiple struggles of the oppressed into a
    side.”

    It seems to me that you have one criticism: Dean rejects individuality. Yes, I do.

    And
    then you end with an anti-communist gesture — one that you link to
    recantations part of the history of anti-communism. But of course that
    does not sum or capture communism or anti-communism, so it strikes me as
    an odd kind of ideological signal.”

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